Monday, October 26, 2015

Insiders and Outsiders

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables…” –Mark 4:11

The way of the kingdom is subtle, small, and unpredictable. It grows in hidden and wild ways (Mk. 4). It is mysterious—to the extent that it often can’t be perceived or, at least, understood except by those on “the inside.” It is divinely revealed, so the “insiders’ are not some elite class or gnostic possessors of secret wisdom. The insiders are those who go with Jesus into the inner room of contemplation, those who seek the deeper ways of the kingdom. No one is restricted from coming. But only a few choose to come “inside.”

Those who go inside with Jesus, however, those who push beyond merely hearing the kingdom parables into living the kingdom parables, they are the good soil that bears fruit. They are the lamps on stands bringing illumination. They are harvesters perceiving and urgently reaping the kingdom’s fruitfulness. They are the birds of the air making their nests in the kingdom’s comforting shade.

Those “outside” are welcome to the parables. The parables are vessels of God’s grace revealing to them the good news of the kingdom. And surely many of these "outsiders" come to understand that there is something bigger, that it is something like God’s reign, and that they can be part of it. 

But that’s often the extent, the limit of the revelation. It’s enough for many…for most, perhaps. Too many, though, remain distracted rocky soil. The message never takes root. The lamp’s illumination remains hidden. The kingdom’s crops are passed by with a shrug on the way to more dazzling worldly attractions. The trying heat of the sun is simply endured. For what relief could be found in such a small, scraggly, wild shrub?

And so they stay outside…looking for bigger things.

Monday, October 19, 2015

With Jesus By the Sea

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”
-Matthew 13:1

There’s something about this picture that is striking. It is the Creator of the universe, the one who made the sea, sitting beside it, perhaps contemplating its beauty as he seeks a moment of silent retreat.

But also, it’s just so ordinary. I have walked out of a house (or hotel) and sat beside the sea. I have sat and pondered the power, majesty, and mystery of the universe and its Lord and Creator, illustrated in the power, majesty, and mystery of the sea. I have retreated to the seaside seeking solitude and silence.

I am in awe of how profound Jesus is, so exalted as the Creator of all—such power, majesty, and mystery embodied in this most holy one. I am in awe that he gathers crowds (usually unsolicited) and takes time to teach them the mysteries of the revelation of God and God’s kingdom, doing so in parables that they can understand and often using images drawn from his own creation.

And I am in awe that he humbled himself to become so like me, contemplating his creation, seeking solitude and silence, himself in awe of power, majesty, and mystery. And so, because he is so exalted and yet so humble, we can sit together beside the sea...even if sometimes the sea is only my soul.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A New Kind of Tree

What is it to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:7-9)? It isn’t just to bear fruit at all or even to bear a new kind of fruit. It is to be a new kind of tree. John the Baptizer calls out the false piety of outward religion, the superficial or even genetic identification with Abraham. This isn’t enough for God. The ax is laid at the root—the root. Trees are getting cut down and thrown into fire. God wants a new kind of tree—the kind of tree that bears repentance fruits…God fruits.

“Only God can make a tree,” wrote poet Joyce Kilmer. And only God can change the kind of tree we are. But we must throw open our branch-arms and turn our leafy faces heavenward. We must absorb the sun and rain of the Spirit graciously falling on us, descending upon us like a dove. We must uproot ourselves and cast ourselves into the baptismal waters…and into the baptismal fire.

Following John the Baptizer, Jesus becomes very concerned that we bear fruit. But this isn’t like someone standing in front of an apple tree sapling yelling, “Grow, darn you! Bear fruit!” This is Jesus graciously offering the health and abundance that are the natural result of life with God—life fully with God. This life is the shalom—the universal well-being—all humanity and all creation were made for: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Fruits worthy of repentance are the life that results from becoming a new kind of tree, a tree deeply rooted in the nourishing ground of God and bearing the fruit of love.

So this tree we are becoming, this new kind of tree, turns out to be the oldest, ageless tree--a tree growing in the fertile Ground of our very being in God. This Ground is the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And this Trinity is the context of our new reality and worldview (see Matt. 28:18-20). So, we are a tree that emerges from the Ground of being, nourished by the waters of baptism and the body and blood of the Lord, and bearing the fruits of the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--fruits worthy of repentance.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Can He Get a Witness?

Jesus promises power to his followers, power to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). But witnesses to what, exactly? Luke is keen on connecting Acts to his “first book,” his Gospel. When we look there, we see Jesus commissioning the disciples to witness to his suffering and rising, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations (Lk. 24:46-48). But how can those of us who didn’t literally witness his suffering and rising still be such witnesses?

We continue to preach Jesus’ suffering and rising, of course. But our witness seems especially alive when we live and act in solidarity with those who suffer, especially when we do so in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. This is not just a sing-songy Christian happiness, but deep kingdom-bringing. It is justice-seeking, peace-making, and abiding contentment because of the presence of God. This brings the “rising” into the midst of the “suffering.”

This witness also includes disciple-making. This is taking up one’s cross in the spirit of self-denial and following Jesus. This sweeps in the message of “repentance and forgiveness of sins,” turning from self-glorification and worldly allegiances to humble service and freedom in Christ. Jesus’ commission in Mt. 28:18-20 fits here, with its new worldview of Christ’s authority, life with the Trinity, and obedience to Christ.

So this is the “power” we receive: 

  • To proclaim and live the message of suffering and rising; 
  • To herald the authority and liberation of the risen King;
  • To live and lead in the way of forgiveness and humble service. 

In a larger sense, the power we receive is the power to give up power, thereby witnessing to the
true King. Can he get a witness?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Come and See

Image from The Brick Testament
When Jesus turned and saw two of John’s disciples following him, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them,“Come and see.”
--John 1:38-39

Jesus’ invitation to Andrew and his fellow disciple, and Phillip’s subsequent invitation to Nathanael, are the same: “Come and see” (John 1:39, 46). Though there are two different words being used for “see” (the first to do more specifically with physical sight and the second including the idea of mentally apprehending), the implications are the same. What is being described is the two-fold process of discipleship: 1) Leaving behind life as one knows it; and 2) Opening oneself to Jesus’ revelation. Come. See.

It begins, of course, with Jesus’ first words in John’s Gospel: “What are you looking for?” We must answer this question, to Jesus and to ourselves. What are you looking for? If we say to Jesus, with these two would-be disciples, “Where are you staying?” then we must be prepared for his answer: “Come and see.” He doesn’t settle for giving directions. The call isn’t to follow a set of platitudes and self-help principles. This is confrontation with the offense of the Incarnation.

There is more “seeing” in Jesus’ subsequent discussion with Nathanael, who is too easily impressed with Jesus seeing him (47-51). “Don’t just believe because I saw you,” says Jesus. “You must begin to see, to see great things, including the angels coming and going around the Son of Man. Come out from under your fig tree and see heaven on earth.” Come out from the blindness of tepid trivia (Where are you staying? Can anything good come from Nazareth? How do you know me?) and see God revealing himself in the world. Come and see.

We try so hard to reverse the order: See and come. Even in our attempts at spiritual quests and seeking God we want answers and direction before we follow. And to some degree, just hearing the invitation of Jesus is a way of beginning to see. But we often leave it there. “I’ve heard Jesus’ invitation. I recognize that he is the Savior, that he loves me, that he wants me to repent and believe his good news. It is enough.”

But recognizing Jesus and following him are very different. Even seeing that he is God’s revelation is not the same as actually seeing what God is revealing. In order to truly see—to see God, to see heaven on earth, and to know Jesus as teacher and lord—one must first come. Come…and see.

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